Obama's Foreign Aid Mess

Thanks to an absurd vetting process, the visionary Dr. Paul Farmer is going to work for Bill instead of Hillary—leaving the president's foreign aid agenda at risk.

08.15.09 7:43 PM ET

President Obama promised to double foreign aid, but USAID is languishing without a leader in part due to his administration’s unreasonable vetting process. Michelle Goldberg asks if Obama can still fulfill his pledge.

The saintly, visionary public-health physician Paul Farmer is going to work for a Clinton—just not the one everyone expected. Until last week, Farmer was rumored to be Hillary Clinton’s choice to head USAID, the foreign-aid agency that has languished without a leader for almost seven months. Then he bowed out, and Wednesday came news that he’s going to be the U.N. Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti under Bill Clinton. It’s probably a much better position for him—Farmer isn’t a bureaucrat, and Haiti, where he founded the pioneering Zanmi Lasante hospital, is by all accounts where his heart is. But it raises a question that’s being asked with increasing urgency within development circles—why can’t the Obama administration fill the void at the top of USAID?

Candidates have to detail every foreign citizen they know, a daunting task for anyone with real global experience.

Foreign aid, after all, is a crucial part of the Obama administration’s ambitions for the globe. During the campaign, Barack Obama promised to double aid, and his entire approach to the world is based on emphasizing diplomacy and development in addition to military defense. As secretary of State, Hillary Clinton also pledged to make aid a priority. Speaking to USAID employees on her second day on the job, she said, “I wanted to come here today with a very simple message: I believe in development, and I believe with all my heart that it truly is an equal partner, along with defense and diplomacy, in the furtherance of America’s national security.” In Africa last week, she promoted aid for agricultural development as a “signature element” of the administration’s foreign policy.

Yet without leadership at USAID, not much progress can be made, and with Farmer out, it’s unclear who else is in the running. Among people who work on aid issues, impatience is giving way to disappointment and anger. “There was so much talk about how military might alone will not get us out of some of these armed conflicts that we’re involved in, and that we need to focus on civilian capacities. There was a lot of lip service to that,” says Amy Frumin, who served as USAID’s field officer in Afghanistan until two years ago. “By virtue of the fact that we haven’t appointed a new administrator, it seems we’re not taking action on that front.”

Even Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of State has always swallowed whatever disagreements she might have with the White House, spoke out last month. "The clearance and vetting process is a nightmare and it takes far longer than any of us would want to see," she told a meeting of USAID employees. “It is frustrating beyond words. I pushed very hard last week when I knew I was coming here to get permission from the White House to be able to tell you that help is on the way and someone will be nominated shortly…The message came back: 'We're not ready.'"

It’s possible to view the vacuum at USAID as symptomatic of tension between Clinton and Obama. Many people in the aid world speculate about the same list of possible candidates, some of them obviously Clinton people, others clearly associated with Obama. One name that often comes up is Wendy Sherman, who worked in Bill Clinton’s State Department and is now at the Albright Group, a firm founded by Madeleine Albright. Another is Gayle Smith, a former senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, and one of two leaders of the administration’s foreign-assistance transition team.

But the real problem in finding a leader for USAID goes deeper than mere rivalry.

The USAID that Obama inherited, almost everyone agrees, is a mess. It’s desperately in need of restructuring, and there are a number of plans in the works to do just that. But that means whomever is offered the job can’t quite know what they’re going to be leading.

Meanwhile, the vetting process for government officials has become preposterous. Among other things, candidates for the USAID post have to detail everywhere they’ve lived in their adult lives, and every foreign citizen they know—a particularly daunting prospect for people with lots of global experience. It’s as if it were designed to weed out anyone who hasn’t lived their entire life with a federal appointment in mind. It all adds up to a kind of case study of Washington dysfunction.

Right now, there’s a fairly widespread consensus on the need to beef up American development assistance. In 2007, according to a report by Jeffrey Sachs, Gayle Smith, and Leo Hindery, Jr., defense received 95 percent of national-security outlays, while development got just 3 percent. Even military men see this as a problem. Last March, Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni and Navy Admiral Leighton Smith, representing a group of over 50 retired officers, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asking for more support for development. “We must match our military might with a mature diplomatic and development effort worthy of the task ahead,’ they said, adding, “Our military mission has continued to expand as funding for the State Department and development agencies has been inadequate to the tasks they have been asked to perform.”

USAID, which was started during the Cold War, has been severely weakened since its founding. Last year, the former heads of USAID under Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush collaborated on an article about the agency for Foreign Affairs. In it, they assailed the way the agency has deteriorated in the last two decades. Among other things, they noted that USAID has suffered “from crippling staff cuts. In 1980, the agency had 4,058 permanent American employees. By 2008, the number had dropped to 2,200.” Nor is the problem just one of numbers. Once a fairly autonomous agency, USAID has been folded into the State Department. Like many observers, the former USAID administrators see this as a mistake, resulting in stifling new layers of bureaucracy. But, given all the overlapping crises in which the United States is embroiled, its unclear when reform will actually happen, and how much independent authority the new head of USAID will eventually have.

Meanwhile, American foreign aid has increasingly been militarized. As Frumin wrote in a report released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in June, between 1999 and 2005, “the share of official development funds channeled through the Department of Defense increased from 3.5 percent to 21.7 percent.” The share funneled through USAID fell from 65 percent to less than 40 percent.

No one seems happy with this arrangement, but USAID has become so weak and demoralized that it’s hard to make the case for giving it more responsibility. “I honestly think I spent more time fighting the aid bureaucracy than any sort of battle with Afghans good or bad,” says Frumin. “It’s so much hassle to get through the aid bureaucracy. USAID’s first response is always no.” While the military can contract with local people and grassroots organizations, regulations force USAID to work through international NGOs. Those NGOs may well subcontract with the same people on the ground that the military would have hired, but the whole process is far more expensive and cumbersome.

“It’s a vicious cycle, because USAID doesn’t have human resources to do what it needs to do, it doesn’t have the instruments to do what it needs to do, and then it gets blamed for doing a bad job,” says Frumin.

Turning such an organization around is going to be a monumental task. Since Paul Farmer is a rock star in the world of foreign aid, the possibility of him taking over the beleaguered agency generated lots of excitement. Ultimately, though, as Farmer himself reportedly realized, he’s no bureaucrat and certainly no Washington infighter. He was put off by the labyrinthine vetting procedure he would have had to go through, but ultimately the job itself was a bad fit.

Still, the vetting process is such that even someone ideally suited to the position will likely have a hard time surviving it. And the prize is leadership of an agency in severe disrepair, one with an uncertain future but responsibly for an absolutely crucial piece of American foreign policy. The administration needs to find someone soon to fix USAID, but getting the right person will be hard as long as USAID is broken.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.